Monday, December 15, 2008

The Third Age

I used to have a TiVo so I was active on the TiVo Community Forums. One forum there is the TV Show Talk forum in which people just talk about their favorite shows; there's nothing TiVo-specific about it, but it's to my mind just about the right size forum with the right amount of moderation. Others featuring talk about TV shows tend to be too big (so you have no sense of people, just a vast mass of posts, and too much crap that comes from the anonymity), or too small (so there's not enough activity to sustain interest), or moderated too much (so you can't talk freely), or moderated too little (so you get stuck with spam, spoilers, flame wars, or off-topic diversions). So even when I dropped out of most of the forum after switching away from my TiVo I stayed with that forum.

Typically there will be one new thread per episode of any of the popular shows, and since everyone there is a DVR user, these threads have a long lifespan because people might be weeks or months behind on their viewing.

A few months ago, someone had the novel idea of encouraging the people of the forum to pretend Babylon 5 was just airing, two episodes a week. We would all watch at that pace on our own, from the DVD sets, and then have threads where we would recreate the experience of watching it as if it were a first-run show.

Babylon 5 is ideally suited to that kind of analysis and sharing because of its arc, because of how much of a breakthrough show it was, and because so many of the people on the forum either are fans of the show, or would be, if they had seen it. In fact, Babylon 5 was in many ways the first show ever to have such discussions: back when it was first airing, the primary creator, the so-called Great Maker, J. Michael Stracynski (JMS), was active on Usenet and participated on the (and later, newsgroup, at a time when the people making shows had no contact with the fans (except maybe in panels years later at sci-fi conventions, if even then). There were weekly discussions of every episode and JMS participated in them.

The idea of simulating a show's first run like this is very inventive and clever, and I think it's worked out very well. As it happens, more than half of the people watching along are those of us who saw the show when it first aired. We're making an effort to post as if it were our first time too -- not just avoiding spoilers, but also avoiding speculation unless we can be sure to firewall away what we know of what would happen later. Above all trying to help the folks who are new to the show to have that first time through experience.

The show starts weak, with low production values, some crappy stories, and bad acting, but you can also see the promise very plainly: the signs that this isn't going to be just another sci-fi show, that it's one coherent story with a start middle and end, that it's going to try things no one else tried before and even some things that aren't tried much since, that it's going to take your expectations of status quo and sacred cows and use them to yank you on a thrill-ride, that it'll all turn out to be about something and not just a humdrum something but the really big things. Some of the folks dropped out before the midway point of season one. But those who made it to season two all stuck with it, and most of them, somewhere by season three, got tired of waiting to watch only two a week, and rushed ahead to at least the end of season four (where we are now, in fact), if not to the very end. I'm actually not sure if there's anyone left who's still doing a first watching on the appointed schedule!

There's no question that the show has aged. It's easy to be critical for a lot of reasons, but one more than most: the things that were most new, ground-breaking, and fresh then, have in many cases become de rigeur (or at least far from unprecedented) since because B5 changed the face of sci-fi TV. Some are more obvious than others. B5 was the first major TV show to use CGI extensively for effects, for instance. And B5 having a story arc with a fixed duration, planned out in advance, is something that has become common these days (even if the makers of shows like Lost still aren't convincing me that they really planned it out from the start).

But it's more than that. One good example is the episode "Believers", middle of the first season, which revolves around an alien family whose child is ill, and the station's doctor trying to cure him but being prevented by the family's religious beliefs. Up to the last few minutes you can easily expect the show to be going the direction it went in similar stories in every sci-fi show ever. Then it doesn't. It goes in a direction TV shows never go, with an ending that leaves you reeling. Today, endings like that are common; in some ways they're even more common than the old standard. They're not as shocking now. It would be grandiose to say B5 is responsible for that change, but B5 was at least a standard-bearer in the process of that change happening.

One can point to a dozen more similar examples even within the fairly weak first season. The strange device with amazing powers which solves a problem and then seems to have been forgotten in the next episode... only later, it comes up a few more times. Episodes focusing on the blue-collar workers that keep the station running, or on the press and its part in the stories it tells. Truly sympathetic depictions of religion alongside the critical ones. Characters who change in amazingly deep ways over the course of the show. It's easy to point at sci-fi TV shows now that have all those things. But when B5 aired, there wasn't any of it at all.

So this attempt to simulate a first airing is in a way doomed: we can never get people to see B5 as something as groundbreaking as it really was because we're too used to things that were stunningly new then. The flaws are just as evident but the virtues are more faint. But the point of the exercise isn't just to be a history lesson. It's just plain fun, and a good excuse to revisit a great show.

1 comment:

litlfrog said...

I applaud even an imperfect attempt to have this kind of communication. Once a piece of culture has made its impact, it's hard to go back and recreate what our mental space might have been like before that art existed. We need to keep this kind of memory alive, because the changes these things work are not at all obvious from the thing itself. You'd never know how Pretty in Pink changed film soundtracks, how Citizen Kane changed filmmaking, how Buffy made female action heroes commonplace, just be watching those things.